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Taoiseach Brian Cowen

Cowen dons the hair shirt

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Taoiseach Brian Cowen

Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen has certainly donned the hair shirt when it comes to Ireland’s economy with the kind of emergency budget that leaves very few Irish citizens untouched by tax increases of one kind or another. 

The budget will hit hard right across the Irish nation. The shock will be felt especially hard in a country which until about 12 months ago was living high on the hog, complacent in its reputation as the European golden boy.

Those days are over, and the inevitable media backlash has occurred in a country where doom and gloom is now a flourishing industry. A recent psychiatric survey published in The New York Times showed that for every positive fact people retain, they retain four negative facts. Dare we say in Ireland the ratio might be closer to double that.

Credit to Cowen, however, for grasping the nettle. There was very little else he could do under the circumstances of collapsing tax revenues and huge growth in new unemployed, but it seems he is prepared to tell the truth to the Irish people, painful as it is.

Until his recent trip to America Cowen was still sending out mixed messages on how bad things really were in Ireland.

Perhaps buoyed by that successful visit here when he had more face time with President Obama than any other leader in the world to date, Cowen went back and told some hard truths.

He gathered the political correspondents of the various media outlets together and gave it to them unvarnished and directly.

The immediate reaction was predictable. He went up in the polls. Irish people are no different to any others in that they appreciate being told the truth rather than the usual political spin when a crisis has reached its zenith.

Cowen did not gild the lily, nor did he do so in this latest budget. In so doing he will finally help stop the nonsense and misdirection that has been going around about the state of the Irish economy.

The Irish economy has received a double whammy of the worldwide recession and its own property bubble, which burst with spectacular effect a few months back.

The Irish banks, as in America, have acted disgracefully and have denied their obligations until very recently. Cowen has done the only thing possible in the circumstances and confronted them and everyone else with the truth.

Now that this budget effectively bails out those banks from their bad debts he should move quickly now and force those bank chiefs and their cronies who helped get Ireland into this mess out of office a quickly as possible.

He has the example of what Barack Obama did when the government effectively took over General Motors when he gave marching orders to then chief executive Rick Wagoner.

Cowen need also look to the nexus of much of the crisis -- the far too cozy relationship between many in his own party and property developers who helped cause the crash. A new set of political fundraising and ethical rules in Ireland is badly overdue.

But Cowen appears to be finding his feet in the crisis. There has been no suggestion of personal corruption in his own career. He is undoubtedly a talented politician who from the day he took office has found himself beleaguered and under siege as the economy collapses in dramatic fashion.

Like Obama however, he may have stopped the rot, found the bottom and now needs to find a way to start climbing back out of the abyss. For the sake of the Irish people we can only wish him well.

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